Self-Reference Engine

Self-Reference Engine
Enjo To (EnJoe Toh)

By the author’s own admission, this one isn’t for everyone. Enjo To (I refuse to endorse improper romanization) is a theoretical physicist turned award-winning, but controversial, author. Self-Reference Engine is his debut novel, critically acclaimed and utterly impenetrable. It is also his first novel in English, though it was preceded by a short story in Haikasoru’s The Future is Japanese. (Also impenetrable.) Enjo fills it with brain melting science and convoluted storytelling, not so much daring readers to follow him as casually inviting them into his post-Einsteinian home. Some will go for this, others will just be confused. Enjo offers no apologies for the craziness. After all, he has said in interviews, if a story is about a fractured space-time, shouldn’t the story itself be fractured?

I’m guessing that most readers will have decided by now if they want to give Self-Reference a try, so rather than write a proper review, I’m going to try to create a framework to help someone who just picked it up the book to make sense of it. (With the caveat that plenty went over my head, and this probably requires two or three attempts before any sort of real clarity can be found.) I will eschew spoilers, but it’s kind of hard to spoil a non-linear narrative where characters share names but not identities, and things are happening in different parts of the multiverse.

First, Self-Reference is a post-Singularity novel. AI’s evocatively called “giant corpora of knowledge” have taken over the show and left humans, with their puny reasoning limits, far behind. (Apparently the Japanese term is an Enjo original, so translator Terry Gallagher was forced to come up with the phrase. I think he did well.) The book goes further though, post-post-Singularity if you will, because the corpora have inadvertently gone so far as to shatter the space-time continuum. This is known as “The Event,” and frames the novel. A more orthodox story would follow the post-Apocalyptic struggle of humanity, or perhaps chart the corpora battle to reunite the fragments of the multiverse. Enjo is anything but orthodox however, so we get flashes and vignettes, but nothing so mundane as a plot.

The twenty-two chapters sketch out The Event, life immediately after, corpora campaigns to fix things, and other seemingly random scenes. They are, indeed, self-referential, though not always obviously so. Names repeat, though the characters may or may not be iterations of themselves. Objects and ideas reappear, but one can’t say for certain that they are the same objects and ideas. The efforts of the greatest minds in existence chase their own tails through space-time, moving in, if I recall correctly, 87 dimensions. More surprises await in the second half as, I think, Enjo actually goes so far as to affirm humanity’s importance. Unless I totally misunderstood that part.

The reader should be prepared for brain damage at every turn. My favorite chapter involved the discovery of 22 unconscious Freuds in grandma’s house, one under each tatami mat in the living room. There is a cameo by Military SF. There is unrequited love. There is possibly requited love between a man (I think) and a transgendered sock. There is first contact, slapstick comedy (of a sort), and furniture invading from another universe. Does it all come together in the end? Um, maybe. Then again, I don’t think it’s really supposed to. Enjo wants to explore a fractured space-time, so that’s what we get. Clearly, this isn’t going to work for some people.

Some of my friends should definitely read this. Others should probably avoid it. I’m guessing everyone will know immediately which side of the fence they are on; I wouldn’t think to change any minds. I won’t have time in the near future to give Self-Reference the reread it deserves, but I’m glad I made it through once. The weirdness sits just fine for me.

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